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Boycotting the obscene Olympics

Sochi Games a monument to oppression and corruption

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Brian Cassella / MCT files

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Brian Cassella / MCT files

At $51 billion, the Sochi Olympics cost more than all other past Winter Games combined.

That tidbit, now widely repeated, was included in a national news story one night last week, and marked the moment I decided to boycott, as best I can, the Sochi Olympics.

Sochi's price tag is 13 times the annual cost of an effective global anti-malaria program. It's about twice the annual cost of eradicating poverty in Canada. It could build, launch and land another 20 new-generation Mars Rovers.

It's obscene, made exponentially worse because it's been spent to glorify an increasingly autocratic and corrupt government instead of individual athletic skill and determination.

Much has already been said about the Russian government's petty and regressive anti-gay laws, the same ones that may have prompted Russian authorities to censor a fun and cheeky website belonging to the fun and cheeky Canadian bobsled team. The burly gents posed in their underwear, tweeted the picture, earned some favourable retweets from the gays and then found their website banned before the opening ceremony. That is one relatively inconsequential side-effect of legislation that effectively outlaws the gay-rights movement and has already prompted arrests.

The suppression of gay-rights speech is just one element of Russian President Vladimir Putin's growing crackdown on dissidents and activists. There have been new restrictions on protests. Activists and journalists have been jailed on trumped-up charges. Two punk rock singers spent months in a modern-day gulag, only moderately less awful than Ivan Denisovich's. Human Rights Watch called 2012 the worst year for human rights in Russia's recent history, and things have only deteriorated in the lead-up to the Olympics.

Much has also been said about the rampant, almost unbelievable corruption related to Sochi's Olympic construction, which has been so behind and botched that Twitter was clogged with gross and funny tales of brown water, filthy rooms and people willing to trade three filched light bulbs for a working doorknob. The humour veiled a deeper problem -- that billions have gone unaccounted for and are likely in the hands of some of the world's most ruthless oligarchs.

And we won't even talk about the terrorist threat, Russia's suppression of self-determination movements in Chechnya and beyond or the stray-dog cull.

It's too much. It's too much misery and cronyism and waste and vanity to overlook. It's almost entirely overshadowed the spirit of the Games, and it should. So, I'm boycotting.

My boycott is lame. Short of a little retweeting, there is virtually nothing I can do that might directly hurt the Russian government or the International Olympic Committee that saw fit to sell the Winter Games to a place where the least serious problem is the almost complete lack of snow. And it's worrisome that any tiny, boycott-like measures might hurt athletes, whose skill and fortitude I can't fathom, but admire.

Still, for the next two weeks, I'm going to avoid all television and radio coverage of the Games, especially the relentless and fawning Olympic coverage that's embedded in nearly every local and national moment of CBC News programming now. I'm going cold-turkey on the CBC. I'm also avoiding any newspaper stories about the Games themselves, though I've already failed repeatedly at this and it's only Day 4. But I did try to avert my eyes from the jingoistic hoopla of the opening ceremony broadcast on the Free Press News Café TVs Friday. A boycott also means no Coke Zero or McDonald's french fries or shopping at Canadian Tire or Hudson's Bay with my Visa -- all Olympic sponsors.

To be fair, I'm not a massive sports fan, so I wouldn't necessarily be glued to the Games. But, it's hard not to get caught up in the Olympics by osmosis. Before competition began, I already knew, somehow, about Regina snowboarder Mark "McLovin'" McMorris's busted rib, the three delightful Dufour-Lapointe sisters who are medal hopefuls in skiing, and Canadian women's hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser, the momma-bear of Canada's delegation, who is in the twilight of her career.

Those athletes embody the best about the Olympics, a global celebration of friendly competition, culture and courage. Unfortunately, thanks largely to one power-hungry man and the willingness of the Olympic movement to appease him, these Games are the worst, and no amount of athletic accomplishment makes up for that.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2014 A1

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